The Portrayal of Free Will in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
“Denmark’s a prison” – Hamlet (2.2.234)
During the Elizabethan era, in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written, the public opinion was very much one of the belief in fate and the deterministic nature of the Universe. These views were often symbolised by a ‘wheel of fortune’, which held the lives of all people and ultimately decided their position in life – a beggar or a king, your fate was simply determined by the spin of a wheel. This idea is particularly fascinating when incorporated in theatrical tragedies, such as Hamlet and Macbeth, as it allows the protagonists to be portrayed as ‘victims of their own destinies’, increasing the dramatic impact of their eventual downfall. Similarly, the renowned relationship between Romeo and Juliet – the “pair of star-cross’d lovers” – seems to be destined to fail from the beginning, as claimed by the Chorus as early on as the Prologue. In Hamlet, particularly, the idea of free will and fate is discussed in a plethora of ways, and some more directly than others; however, in particular, it is associated with the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia: two youths destined suffer ends that, in the words of the character himself, are shaped by “a divinity”.
The notion of free will is hinted at throughout the play, and is greatly contrasted with the major themes of duty and fate, about which the characters also talk of a great deal (“I hold my duty, as I hold my soul” – 2.2.44). Throughout the play, Hamlet feels constrained and trapped by his duty to seek revenge for his father’s murder – he explains how imminent and pressing this fate is to him even before his knowledge of his father’s death, exclaiming that his “fate cries out and makes each petty arture in [his] body as hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve” (1.4.81-83). This elaborate simile emphasises just how much his future lies within the hands of his father’s ghost, suggesting that he believes that once he hears what his father has to say, his fate will be sealed. The concept of logical fatalism (which states that we have no power over the events that will eventually affect us when they arrive from the future to the present) was greatly supported by Greek philosopher Aristotle (384BC – 322BC), and is discussed in Chapter 9 of his ‘De Interpretatione’. This is largely due to his belief that the future is fixed, hence meaning that we have no power over our future actions. He argues that everything that happens does so purely because of necessity: because it must happen. Hamlet saying that his “fate cries out”, then, may show that he acknowledges his future actions and his fate to be actively real, and something he has no freedom to change.
Furthermore, we can consider free will (or the lack of) as a result of society, here portrayed in particular through the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. Firstly, one could argue that Hamlet’s freedom of action is greatly reduced by his own role in society as the Prince of Denmark, as highlighted by Laertes when dissuading Ophelia of believing Hamlet’s confessions of love towards her. He warns Ophelia that Hamlet’s “will is not his own for he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3.17-18). This brotherly warning, as well as establishing the relationship dynamic between Laertes and Ophelia, gives the audience an insight into Hamlet’s situation in terms of the political restrictions on his personal affairs. This idea, it could be argued, relates to the Social Contract Theory discussed mostly by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book ‘Du Contrat Social; ou Principes du Droit Politique’ (1762) – this argues that members of a society, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have given consent to sacrifice some of their freedoms to the State in exchange for their protection in society; this can be seen, for example, in the legal system of a society. We sacrifice our individual liberty to, say, challenge another to a public duel to the death in order to settle a dispute, and instead must hand the issue over to the correct authorities (an absurd example, but nevertheless perhaps contextually suitable). Although we may not immediately want to, we surrender some of our freedoms, as the greatest good is generally achieved when disputes are settled justly by the State instead of by individuals in whichever manner they see fit. Similarly, Hamlet has (although unknowingly and without his consent) sacrificed his freedom of marital partner by being part of the Royal Family of Denmark, and therefore his “will is not his own” in this sense. Supposedly, Ophelia was considered too ‘common’ for marriage into the Royal Family, so the State (in this context, the King, Claudius) must forbid it for the greater good of the country. Hence, Hamlet’s free will is shown to be reduced by his role and place in society. In terms of a wider perspective on this matter, it could be interpreted as Shakespeare’s criticism on the nature of politics – and, in particular, their overly-restricting nature. According to author Claire Asquith, although the Elizabethan era is generally viewed as being a time of political consensus, it was in fact “a time in which opposition voices were banished and censorship meant the burning of illegal pamphlets and printed works”. In this way, it could be inferred that, by portraying his characters as being so greatly restricted by politics, Shakespeare was expressing his own contempt at the English Court at the time of writing.
Furthermore, Ophelia’s free will can also be considered to be lessened through her portrayal throughout the play: this time not by her role in society, but by her gender. A Feminist reading of the play would largely argue that Ophelia is greatly constricted in the play and is held back immensely by being a women in a strongly patriarchal society – she is even said to be “incapable of her own distress” in death (4.7.178). Ophelia herself acknowledges this when she tells her brother Laertes that what he has advised her “is in [her] memory locked and [Laertes himself] shall keep the key of it” (1.3.85-86). This highlights the power dynamic between men and women in the Elizabethan era, and although Shakespeare may not have been acutely aware of it at the time, this imagery of Ophelia’s own mind being governed by her brother greatly mirrors how women were treated in that era. As would be expected, in the 17 century women were bound to the home for the entirety of their lives, lives which were often cut short due to the expectation of providing a number of children for their husbands, often leading to death during childbirth.
Hence it can be concluded that Shakespeare, in very much adopting the public consensus of the time, portrayed through his plays the idea of the restriction of free will through many different mediums; in particular, through fate, divine predestination and political and social expectations. With regards to recent neurological studies suggesting the absence of free will – or, at least, a level of free will significantly less substantial than what is often assumed – it could definitely be suggested that Shakespeare was very much ahead of his time in his writings on the topic.